UNO public art class embraces uncomfortable world

Photo by Danielle Meadows

Danielle Meadows

The smell of sawdust lingers in the air inside UNO’s Ceramics and Sculpture Lab as students shape plywood into cringe-worthy words.

David Helm teaches Art in Public Places, where students are finishing up projects that will soon be seen around campus. Before the class, wood-working and welding were foreign to most of Helm’s students – but now, they have added a few more artistic mediums to their repertoires.

After a few class suggestions, the group agreed on titling the exhibit “Onomatophobia” – which is defined as a “fear of words because of their meaning.” This is the sort of reaction the artists are hoping to instill in their audience, picking out some of their least favorite words to display in public. This is not a traditional exhibition of art – there is no conventional beauty here.

Whether it’s due to definition or phonetics, some words simply make the skin crawl. Deciding on terms like munch, ooze, froth and moist, Helm’s students look at the words as symbols that operate in the same way an image would.

“These words have double meanings,” said Helm. “Froth might be on your coffee. It’s also what comes from a rabid dog’s mouth.”

The class has a common belief: art must have multiple sides to truly be art. This is reflected through each individual word, designed to ignite a reaction in more ways than one.

“The words have a little bit of an edge to them, so they’re not supposed to make you feel comfortable,” said Helm. “It’s going to be an experience that hopefully jolts people a little bit and changes their way of thinking.”This project is in the category of an “art intervention,” which is when a public space is changed in some way.

This is typically temporary, intended to alter the meaning or perspectives in an area for a set amount of time. The words will be installed in random places (such as the Pep Bowl) with no linear organization – the terms are meant to stand on their own and not form sentences.

Karmen Valadez is a graduate student in the class. She hates anything to do with teeth or the dentist, naturally choosing “munch” as her word. Making a lot of political art, she focuses on starting conversations or prompting questions through her pieces.

“I think there’s a lot of art that we see every day that we don’t even realize is art,” she said. “People need something to brighten their days or make them think.”

The class explodes with laughter every few minutes because of their unconventional professor. A vibrant connection exists be-tween Helm and these students – bursting with inspiration and interest that is severely lacking in other classrooms.

Valadez said Helm forces students to question their work, which is important because artists often don’t stand back to question the message. Nathan Misek, another student in the class, appreciates how Helm is helping the group transform simple things into works of art.

“People think wood is such a disgusting, ugly medium,” said Misek. “But it’s really a versatile and awesome material that can be made into just about anything.”

Throughout their nearly three-hour classes, the students sharpen their sanding, painting and welding skills. The process of creating the words starts with projecting the letters onto boards, which are then cut out and sanded. After painting each letter, students attach welded brackets that go into the ground, allowing the words to sit above grass.

A lot of measuring and intricate detail is involved in the creation of the individual letters. After working on their pieces for a few weeks, most of the students are reaching the final steps before the exhibit is installed.

Misek said the words are very time consuming to create, but that it’s not a boring process at all. Misek sees art as something that is essential to everyone’s lives. He looks forward to gauging the audience’s reactions to the words created by the class.

“It solely depends on the viewer,” said Misek. “Art is important to have around because it opens these new aisles and avenues. There’s so much to explore.”